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June 21, 2009

Israeli Medical Marijuana Policies

The history of medical marijuana in Israel is fascinatingly strange, making even Rhode Island's look sensible. Haaretz has this longish article about the road medical marijuana has traveled in Israel and where they expect it to go in the future.

Medical marijuana was legalized in Israel in 1999, but only for limited uses. The article describes it differently in three places. Either it was initially restricted to "serious symptoms such as pain, nausea and loss of appetite;" or "only in order to ease pain directly stemming from their disease," or only "for terminal cancer and AIDS patients." The restrictions (whatever they were) were maintained by the fact that only one doctor in Israel was authorized to write prescriptions: Dr. Yehuda Baruch, the head of a psychiatric hospital. Since none of those original justifications for medical marijuana are necessarily psychiatric, I assume he's just a doctor who's got two jobs: by day a mild-mannered head of a lovely psychiatric hosptial, by night the writer of marijuana scrips.

That night job didn't put too much of a strain on him, as he wrote only 10 prescriptions from 1999 through 2005. The population of Israel is about 7,411,000. Ten patients is, then, 0.00013% of the population. In the United States that's the equivalent of only 395 medical marijuana patients. I would guess that the average citizen of Israel is healthier than the average American, but not that much healthier!

Initially, the law in Israel was like that in Rhode Island, in that there was no legal way for a medical marijuana patient to buy his medication. He had to grow it himself. This was in spite of the fact that all of the initial patients were terminally ill. The patient could cultivate up to ten plants and possess 200 grams (about 7 ounces) of processed marijuana. The result was the same as in Rhode Island: the patients bought it from illegal street dealers. The very first patient to receive a prescription for marijuana was nabbed while buying from a street dealer and taken to court in 2001.

Then, around 2005, an anonymous (and illegal) grower approached the Health Ministry and offered to supply marijuana from his grow houses. The Health Ministry agreed, but still with great restrictions. Distribution is made only from one small apartment in Tel Aviv. Only the anonymous grower was allowed to handle the marijuana and roll cigarettes. And, get this, THE MARIJUANA WAS FREE! The state didn't pay for it. The patients didn't pay for it. All of it was grown, processed and distributed completely at the expense of that one anonymous grower.

A big difference between this Tel Aviv distribution point and the collectives in California (and, I think it is safe to assume, distribution centers in any other American state) is that the patients can smoke it at the distribution point! They can even go out in the yard and light up!

There are now 700 patients and Dr. Baruch says the average prescription is for 100 grams per month (about 3.5 ounces). That's more than 154 pounds of marijuana - a lot of healing!

This, obviously, cannot continue. The one doctor writes only 40 new prescriptions per month and is becoming a bottle neck. The whole State of Israel can't continue to depend on one grower to provide all of the medication for free. Besides the problem of his financial losses, his grow site could be lost due to disease or fire, and the article doesn't mention that his generosity is being subsidized by illegal sales of the stuff.

Here Yohai Golan-Gild enters the story. Some sort of illegal party drug supplier in Israel, he went bankrupt and moved to California in 1990s and became the owner of three grow houses. Now Israel has called him home to become the first of 4 or 5 additional, legal growers of marijuana.

"There are 160 varieties of Cannabis in the world and each one has its own side effects," said Golan-Gild, adding, with pleasure, "I can suit each patient with his or her type - one that will cause exhaustion, one that will turn you into a ball of energy in the morning and one that will cause a diagonal erection."

Baruch sees "the potential market in Israel reaching tens of thousands of medicinal Cannabis users, with each one paying NIS 5 or 10 per gram of the drug, or NIS 5,000 to NIS 10,000 per person per year."

"NIS" is an Israeli shekel which today is worth a shade more than 25¢. Mr. Golan-Gild says it costs NIS 15 to grow a gram of medical marijuana, so the difference will have to be subsidized either by the Health Ministry or by each patient's HMO.

Baruch will have three distribution centers (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ra'anana) where patients will, in addition to smoking their marijuana, be able to participate in yoga and Pilates classes.

Filed under Health,Marijuana | permalink | June 21, 2009 at 12:23 PM

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